On Friday, Aaron Swartz was found dead in his apartment; he’d apparently hanged himself. Swartz was only 26, a brilliant and troubled young man who suffered from clinical depression, and also an Internet activist who spoke out and acted out in favor of making access to public information more free to everyone. He was a friend of both Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow.
Swartz’s other accomplishments include RECAP, a tool that uploaded public-domain legal documents retrieved from the subscription-based PACER document record system into a duplicate free-access database. He was also reportedly involved in the early stages of the creation of RSS and Reddit.
In 2011, Swartz was arrested for planting a laptop in MIT to download 4.8 million articles from JSTOR, a subscription-based academic journal research service. (We mentioned him briefly at that point.) He subsequently surrendered the hard drives with the documents, and JSTOR declined to prosecute further. However, a victim’s desire to press charges is not necessary for a US prosecutor to prosecute a case, and prosecutor Carmen M. Ortiz decided to continue to press charges.
If he had been convicted on the charges the prosecutor was pressing, Swartz could have faced up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. It is doubtful that they would have reached that far, however, as it appears that—as in many legal cases these days—these charges were being used as a threat to coerce Swartz into pleading guilty to lesser charges. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see how much extra stress this would put onto a young man who was already prone to depression and had admitted to suicidal thoughts.
Now, let it be said: Swartz did commit a crime. He essentially trespassed on MIT’s computer network, and used their access to download amounts well beyond the limits of the license they were granted. And unlike PACER, JSTOR is not entirely public-domain material. But this is the sort of crime that merits community service, probation, or house arrest. He didn’t threaten anyone with violence, didn’t embezzle millions of dollars, didn’t even cost anyone anything except in terms of bandwidth-type analyses that bear relatively little relationship to the real world. And even the entity that Swartz arguably stole directly from—JSTOR
and MIT—didn’t want to prosecute.
Compared to what other crimes get, 35 years for downloading a few files seems altogether bizarre. In my home town of Springfield, Missouri an exchange student from Saudi Arabia—coincidentally also 26—recently killed a man while driving 70 miles per hour down a city street and he only got 120 days. It’s doubtful that any plea bargain Swartz could have driven against a 35-year sentence would have gotten him off that lightly.
Did DA Ortiz want to make an example of Swartz after what he’d done with RECAP? Did he want to appear to be “tough on crime” and get a guaranteed win in court by pressuring him into taking a plea bargain? I don’t know. But I do know this: whatever crime Swartz committed, it didn’t merit the loss of his life, and whatever great ideas and innovations he might have had over the next 50 years. Now we’ll never know what they might have been, and we’re all the poorer for that.
There is a petition at the White House petition page asking that the President remove DA Ortiz from office for overreach. After only two days, it has gotten almost 9,000 of the 25,000 signatures necessary to require a response. Unlike petitions asking for a Death Star or other ridiculous demands, this one asks for something that is within the White House’s authority. And whether or not the White House chooses to take those steps in response, it does at least send a message that we’re fed up with a legal system that seems to value keeping score more than dispensing justice.
Correction: It has come to my attention that, though JSTOR wanted charges dropped, MIT apparently didn’t. The university has appointed a professor to investigate what role it played in Swartz’s death.